“We the Jury find you…….….GUILTY!”
The past few years have been somewhat of a revelation to me in terms of acceptance. I’ve spent the past twelve years since my diagnosis essentially kicking, fighting and scratching, completely in denial that my life has changed. I didn’t want it to change. And even if it did, other people manage to do what they want even in spite of limitations so why couldn’t I? Simple answer: I’m not other people.
It’s not until I’ve essentially been held down, forced to submit and really open my eyes, that I’ve finally been able to accept (for the most part) that my life is what it is and I can either sit in the corner and whinge, or get on with it.
When asked the generic interview question, “what are your best qualities?” (go with it, I have a point), one of my answers is always determination. It got me through my degree, it got me through living and working abroad with a chronic illness and it’s essentially got me here because I’ve refused to lie down and die. It’s also one of my worst qualities because it can turn from determination to stubbornness moving swiftly to sheer pig-headedness and a refusal to see that I’m wrong (my mother will be so proud that I’m admitting this publicly).
It’s that trait which was my downfall when I had a relapse, mostly because it caused my relapse, but also my salvation in that I didn’t stay down for too long. It’s a balancing act fuelled by my need for perfection and not wanting to let people down, which is then quashed by a flare or an illness.
Along with that constant need for perfection comes the unfortunate companions of fear of failure and guilt. Guilt that I’m not good enough, guilt that I’m not trying hard enough, guilt that I used to be able to do the simplest of things but am now incapable. I’m not. But it feels that way sometimes. I was working all hours available in order to do half the work I would have previously and would consequently burn out, ashamed of my perceived failure.
Which begs the interesting question; is it actually guilt? Or is it shame?
It can be argued that they’re one and the same and on the surface I might agree, but when you get down to the psychology of it, they’re kind of not. It is possible to feel one without the other – you can feel guilty without being ashamed. One definition has it that guilt is usually linked to a specific harm, whether real or perceived and shame is more about negative feelings towards oneself. When you put it that way, the differences become more apparent. The emotions come from the same place (an idea of wrongness), but land differently.
Shame itself however, is a contradictory emotion. There’s good and bad shame, with the good shame leading to remorse. You feel negatively towards yourself because of something you did, but you make a conscious effort to change the behaviour. You feel truly sorry that you caused any pain or harm to others and don’t want to do it again. This is good, this is how we learn empathy. Bad shame is feeling all of that negative emotion and allowing it to consume you. Maybe bad is the wrong word. Unhealthy might be better. Or toxic.
For me, I feel guilty that my illness means I have to depend on others. That is a perceived harm and I say perceived because it’s a bigger deal to me than it is to those others. It turns into shame because it makes me think negatively about myself. That I SHOULD be able to do things the way I used to, I’m not good enough, I could try harder and on and on and on until the shame spiral begins and you end up drowning in it. I don’t feel remorseful, or I didn’t. I was just angry, drowning in the fiery pit of blackness, unable (or unwilling) to change the situation. Which honestly, helps no one.
So what actually is guilt?
Guilt is generally a constructive emotion, it has a purpose. We look at something we’ve done and become our own judge and jury, in the hope that making ourselves feel bad about it will encourage us to change the behaviour. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it doesn’t really matter. For example, I have a habit of eating too much chocolate and it can make me feel bad….just not enough to make me stop. But really, it doesn’t harm anyone, so there’s no problem. If it did get to a point that it was becoming harmful, I would reassess the situation and make a change. Sounds simple, yes?
Guilt is all about expectations, and these can change throughout our lives. As children, we don’t understand right or wrong so we look to others to learn what is acceptable and what isn’t. How many of us have had the “I’m not angry, just disappointed” speech from parents or someone we look up to, that made us take another look at whatever we did and judge it differently. We want approval so we alter our moral code accordingly. As we grow, we may start to disagree and learn to set new boundaries and expectations of ourselves.
This is all fine, but the problem starts when the expectations are too high and uncompromising. The levels of perfection required become unattainable and can have both physical and mental repercussions. It’s a visceral feeling that can make your stomach turn, your heart race and cause you sleepless nights. It’s a balancing act.
Toxic guilt is the one I want to focus on, because it’s the one that represents my situation the most and is generally the most problematic for everyone. My guilt is toxic because it serves no purpose. It’s not helpful, it’s not teaching me anything, it is purely derogatory and negative, and devolves into the aforementioned shame spiral. It’s useless and burns more energy than I should be giving it.
But it’s not always caused by something you’ve done. My guilt over my own perceived failings is due to circumstances completely out of my control. I didn’t choose to be ill and I can’t change it. I just have to live with it. What is in my control is my reaction – guilt/shame – and how I move forward. It’s my own brain and tendency to overthink which sets me on the spiral. My need for perfection and to not appear less than I ever was, is what makes it toxic. My ego is my undoing.
Some toxic guilt and shame can arise from traumas committed by others that have had such a profound effect, that they take over your life. And when you’ve been broken down so completely, your brain re-wires itself. It’s impossible for the brain to get rid of negative memories. You can write over them with positive ones, but you can’t forget them. They’re always there lurking in the background. You just get used to the feeling and adapt to it being a permanent fixture in your life.
What can we do to stop our guilt from becoming toxic?
Just stop thinking about it and it’ll all be fine! Problem solved!
If I had a penny for every time someone used that phrase (or something similar), I’d be richer than I am now. When you’re dealing with toxic guilt, it takes time and sometimes therapy to change your thought process. Telling someone to just ‘stop thinking about it’ is the absolute worst thing you can say, because all it does is make them feel even more negatively about themselves because why can’t they just stop? Other people don’t let things bother them so there must be something wrong with them. They’re such a failure, why does anyone even want to be around them?
It’s not helpful, is what I’m saying.
So is there anything you can do to help?
Yes, there are a few things that can be useful in learning to overcome your tendency to guilt. No matter which method you pick, it’s important to understand that it will take time. None of these are instant fixes.
Therapy: If this is something you’ve been dealing with for years, then it might need the help of a therapist or counsellor to try and unpack it all. I had CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) many years ago and I would recommend it to anyone. It works by identifying the thought processes behind certain behaviours, recognising patterns of negative or inaccurate thinking and working to reshape them. It’s not easy. These negative thoughts are ingrained in our brains and it can take time to change them. It may be something that you have to continually work through, but it is definitely worth it.
Keep a diary: If therapy isn’t something you are able to access, try keeping a diary. When you feel guilty, ask yourself a few different questions;
Once you have the answers to those questions written down, take a good look at them. Imagine it wasn’t you that gave those answers, but a friend. What would you tell them? It’s a pretty good bet that you would show them compassion and forgiveness and that you would help them try to feel more positively about the situation. Write down the answers you would give a friend and apply them to yourself. Keep doing this every time you have a negative reaction and over time, it should become a much more natural response.
Accept that, yes, you may have simply messed up this time: After you’ve worked through your thoughts, it may be the case that you have messed up and do have something to feel guilty about. This is fine. It happens. What we don’t want is that guilt to spiral into shame. We want it to become remorse. In that case, you offer reparation and learn from the situation. If writing it down helps you to work through it, do that.
One thing I’ve found helpful, is after writing it down, I sit with it and repeat the positive answers in my head (or out loud) to cement them into my brain. Then I take the paper with the negative thoughts on and burn it. Once it’s burned to ash, it’s gone. I don’t allow those thoughts any more space. My brain is free for the next lot of negativity to take root, lol. (Disclaimer: if burning things, make sure to do so in an open space with lots of ventilation and on a fireproof surface)
Guilt and shame are not things that need to take over your life. They don’t need to control you. I refuse to let them control me anymore. Am I perfect? No. I have my moments as everyone does, but those moments are just that – moments. Snapshots of time that disappear into ash and blow away on the breeze.